Mention Australia’s Red Center, and the vast, red desert immediately comes to mind. When we set off for Australia last October, the desert was one place we really wanted to see and explore. So it was with much excitement when we found out that we didn’t have to venture far to explore the Australian desert. Just seven kilometers from the city of Alice Springs lies the Alice Springs Desert Park, a conservation park that showcases the Australian desert environment as its best.
Sprawled across the base of the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, the desert park is a beautifully sculpted patchwork of sand country where kangaroos roam, birds fly overhead, and endangered bilby burrow underground. There’s hardly any fence around – it’s almost like an open-air playground where all of the area’s wildlife live freely.
Using a combination of endemic plants, animals and Aboriginal culture, the park introduces visitors like us to the desert environment. The desert is often thought of as vast and barren – but unknown to many, it’s full of life – and this desert park definitely proves that point. Let’s take a look at the different aspects of the park:
During our visit, the park’s guides highly recommended the bird show – where we got to see and interact with the resident birds like the beautiful barn owl, galah (or rose-breasted cockatoo), black kite eagle and crested pigeon. The park’s young rangers were fun and full of live, providing tons of interesting information about these feathered creatures. We met one of them, a young zoologist from Queensland who had left the sunny tropical climate to brave the harsh desert conditions because of her love for these animals. She had initially come as a volunteer but eventually fell in love with the owls and galahs.
Another corner we really enjoyed was the nocturnal house where we got a glimpse of several rare and intriguing creatures like the bandicoot and the greater bilby. The greater bilby is an endangered creature, its population having been reduced by fire and foxes, while the bandicoot is a very vulnerable specie and now found only in very few parts of Australia. The reptile section of the house was rather impressive as well, with displays of thorny devil and bearded dragons. As these nocturnal creatures do not thrive under bright light, the whole house was dim and packed with mystery.
The park is divided into three separate walk-through desert habitats accessed through a 1.6-kilometer trail: Desert Rivers, Sand Country, and Woodland. In the desert river area, we walked through dry river beds where red gums and reeds thrive and mingled with cockatoos and frogs (we could literally walk inside the vegetation area). The sand country showed us the natural conditions of the sandy desert including many salt plans and gypsum. The woodland was our favorite habitat where kangaroos, wallabies and emus scampered around in their own environment. We would hang out with them and just sit nearby with no interference.
The park is also of significant cultural importance to the local Arrernte people and includes parts of the Akngwelye Artnwere and Yeperenye Altyerre (wild dog and caterpillar dreaming stories). The Arrernte is just one of the 500 Aboriginal tribes that live in Australia and there are over 500 Aboriginal languages spoken throughout the country (unknown to many, the Aborigines are not just one tribe). Much of the work of the park is managed by the park’s traditional landowners who are now known as the traditional custodians of the park.
We met Alice Furber, one of the park’s Arrernte custodians and guides. She’s passionate about her own tribe and is determined to educate the public about their culture and traditions. First she talked about the Arrernte’s skin system – something that ensured their continued existence. “We have a skin system that ensures our bloodline stays pure. The Arrernte only marry within the tribe.” Alice explained. The skin system give them a deep sense of belonging.
Alice then showed us how the Arrernte survive on the desert environment for food. Even today, most people in the tribe spend almost 80% of their time hunting for food – both men and women alike – so this is a very important part of their culture. “There’s a supermarket out there,” said Eric, a fellow Arrernte guide, pointing to the bush beyond. He showed us an array of plants and fruit that they usually collect from the surroundings: bush coconut, quandong, bush cucumber, plums, and figs – which we would try later over a bush dinner prepared by an Aboriginal chef.
“People wonder what it is that is so special here and it is because everything comes here. We connect to it, we’re a part of it. Our Country is our home, and we know all the sites and all the features, our rocks, our trees, our hills. We come up with our Country. We come up with it and feel it so strongly.”
– Doris Kngwarraye Stuart, Alice Springs Custodian
Indeed, the Arrernte have a special connection with their land – and it’s easily seen here through the eyes of Alice and Eric. Perhaps it’s because I personally miss having a sense of belonging that but I deeply admire the Aborigines for the strong connection they have with their home.
Entrance fee for the Alice Springs Desert Park is AU$25 per person. It’s opened from 7.30am to 6pm daily. The Desert Park is approximately a 10 minute journey from the centre of Alice Springs. The Park is accessible by motor vehicle, touring coaches or Desert Park Transfers.
For more information, visit the website: http://www.alicespringsdesertpark.com.au.